For any band, the sophomore album presents a set of rather unique challenges. But for an act like Bloc Party, who blasted out of the blue thanks to the worldwide acclaim for their debut disc, Silent Alarm, those challenges were even more unusual.
Not only does their second album, A Weekend in the City, carry with it the hype and expectations of both the press and the public, but the band was somehow tapped to debut songs from that LP before super-size crowds of squealing prepubescents as the improbable opening act on Panic! at the Disco's high-fructose arena tour (see "Panic! At The Disco Open Tour With Mime, Drum Line — Oh Yeah, And Rock").
And needless to say, things didn't go too well, as Bloc Party lasted just three dates on the tour before dropping off so drummer Matt Tong could recuperate from a collapsed lung. Which, if you ask the band, was actually a bit of a blessing in disguise.
"I think the circumstances were quite unfortunate, and obviously I'm not pleased that my drummer friend has an exploded lung and now has to live like an invalid," frontman Kele Okereke laughed. "The preferred course of action would've been to finish the tour, because we would've warmed into it. ... It was definitely an experience.
"We've only done one support tour before," he added. "It was a challenge, and so we tried to step up. I don't know, we got lots and lots of MySpace friend requests because of it. But to be honest, I've never heard any of [Panic's] music."
Tong, by contrast, was slightly less diplomatic about the experience. "I couldn't make an accurate summation [about Panic] based on the three-minute conversation I had with the lead singer [Brendon Urie]. But to me,there should always be an inherent difference between playing music and expressing yourself without considering business factors, and the music becoming a means to an end," he said, "and not being to entertain people or attain some sense of creative self-worth. You know, to be a rung in the ladder ... of a business empire."
Tong's statement is an interesting one, because the majority of Weekend (due February 6) deals with exactly those same kinds of issues: youth being co-opted by corporations, the loss of identity in the modern world, the loneliness of life in a megapolis. Both embracing and dissecting the flimsy fibers that unite us all in this age of interconnectivity, it's an album of sharp dichotomies — sonically expansive yet lyrically claustrophobic, joyous but weary, jittery in both a post-9/11 and a Saturday-night-on-the-prowl kind of way.
Over glitchy vocal samples, piston-like drums, swooning synths and prickly guitars, Okereke weaves 11 tales of big-city life, darting between overly lonely narratives about dead-eyed teens, morning commuters, business executives and coked-up clubgoers, while capturing both the fleeting moments of beauty and soul-wrenching nights of desperation that come with 21st-century living in a faceless, unforgiving metropolis.
"A lot of the ideas for these songs came to me whilst we were touring last year, and I was coming back to the U.K. intermittently and seeing friends that I was at university with," the singer/guitarist explained. "They're all working, all commuting, all getting drunk on the weekend. And no one seemed to be particularly happy. Everyone I spoke to seemed to have this real sort of incongruity between what they thought life was going to be and what life actually was. And I wanted to capture that real sense of optimism fading against the grind and routine of everyday life. It's about getting lots and lots of different perspectives; all the songs are different voices: a teenager, a commuter, an executive type — all these snapshots of people that paint one large picture.
"And it's quite disconcerting to me that whilst touring, there isn't much difference between how people behave in New York and London and Japan," he continued. "Everyone reads the same magazines and everyone watches the same forms of media, and I guess due to globalization, there seems to be just one real way of doing things. That's the thing I found the most disappointing about touring the world."
But now, with a new album ready to drop, Bloc Party are gearing up to tour the globe once again. And though A Weekend in the City — recorded in Dublin with producer Jacknife Lee (Snow Patrol's Eyes Open) — bubbles with world-weary sentiments, Okereke promised that he and the rest of the band are simply itching to get back on the road. And this time, they'll be playing to a more, well, mature audience.
"We only did three shows of a five-week tour, and we were just getting into a groove, and then things had to be called off. So, yeah, we're ready to go out again," he said of the failed Panic excursion. "Like I said, the last tour was an experience. And I'd like to think [the kids] who saw us on it did take it into their hearts and were concerned with the intention of the lyrics, but I do know that to some people it's just about hearing a song on the radio or having it on their phone. All you can hope is that the record will be something that seeps under their skin."